In many countries today, the pattern of interlocking stripes called a tartan is often mistakenly known as “plaid.”
Plaid actually comes from the Gaelic word for a blanket, and is specifically used in the context of Highland dress to refer to a large length of material. The original kilt was known as the “belted plaid” and consisted of a length of cloth (basically a large blanket) that was gathered and belted at the waist. The plaids were most often made from a tartan cloth, and so the confusion between the two terms is understandable. Tartan refers to the pattern of interlocking stripes, running in both the warp and weft in the cloth (horizontal and vertical), or any representation of such a woven design in other media (printed, painted, or otherwise rendered). Typically today one thinks of “clan tartans” — that is, tartan designs that represent certain Scottish clans and families. While this is typical, it was not always so. Tartan has an ancient history. The earliest known tartan in Scotland can be dated to the third or fourth century AD. In other parts of the world, tartan cloth has been found dating to approximately 3000 BC. Virtually everywhere there was woven cloth, people created tartan designs. Yet only in Scotland have they been given such cultural significance. Why? Originally, tartan designs had no names, and no symbolic meaning. All tartan cloth was hand woven, and usually supplied locally. While it may have been true that certain colors or pattern motifs were more common in some areas than others, no regulated or defined “clan tartan” system ever existed. Tartan, in general, however came to be extremely popular in Scottish
Highland culture. So much so that by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tartan clothing is seen to be characteristic of Highland dress. Tartan was so identified with the Highland Gael that after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British governme
nt, in the Act of Proscription, forbade the wearing of tartan (among other things) in the Highlands, in an attempt to suppress the rebellious Scottish culture. By the end of the eighteenth century, large scale commercial weavers had taken up the production of tartan. The most notable of these is the firm of William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn. This firm was begun sometime around 1765 and became quite successful, being the sole supplier of tartan cloth to the Highland Regiments. Because they were producing cloth in such large quantities, they developed standard colors and patterns early on. At first they assigned numbers to identify the patterns, but soon began to give them names. These not only included names of Highland clans, but also town names, and some fancy names to boot. The names were not meant to be representative in any way — they were there as a sales tool, to identify one tartan pattern from another. In Wilsons’ Key Pattern Book of 1819, some 250 tartans are included, about 100 of which were given names. These were not only tartans of Wilsons’ designs, but patterns that they had collected from all over Scotland. In the early nineteenth century, the idea began to gel that the names borne by the tartans represented actual connections to these clans. Scots expatriates who grew up outside of the Highland line began to get interested in preserving Highland culture. It was assumed that tartans had always been named and these represented actual affiliations. In 1815 the Highland Society of London wrote to the clan chiefs asking them to submit samples of their clan tartans. Many chiefs had no idea what “their clan tartan” was supposed to be and so either wrote to tartan suppliers such as Wilsons, or asked the older men of their clan if they recalled any particular tartan being worn. In 1822 King George IV visited Edinburgh, in a veritable “tartan fest” partly organized by Sir Walter Scot. All the clan chiefs were asked to come out to greet the King in their “proper clan tartan.” Again, many did not have a clan tartan. Many new tartans were no doubt created, or renamed for the occasion. From this point on, however, the idea was firmly established that in order to even be a proper tartan, it had to be a named tartan. The story of the development of tartan lore over the course of the nineteenth century is long and complicated, and beyond the scope of this brief introduction. But with the blessing of the clan chiefs, the tradition evolved by the end of the nineteenth century that tartan was representative. Though clan tartans are the most well known, tartans can represent many different things. Some tartans represent families, towns, district, corporations, individuals, events — you name it! What makes a tartan “official” or “authentic” is not age or antiquity, but whether it has the approval of the governing body of what that tartan represents. If a clan chief, or a state’s legislature, or the CEO of a company says this is the official tartan, it is so, whether the tartan is two or two hundred years old.
The Dress Act of 1746 attempted to bring the warrior clans under government control by banning the tartan and other aspects of Gaelic culture. When the law was repealed in 1782, it was no longer ordinary Highland dress, but was adopted instead as the symbolic national dress of Scotland.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were only associated with either regions or districts, rather than any specific clan. This was because like other materials tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would usually only use the natural dyes available in that area, as chemical dye production was non-existent and transportation of other dye materials across long distances was prohibitively expensive.
The patterns were simply different regional checked-cloth patterns, chosen by the wearer’s preference – in the same way as people nowadays choose what colours and patterns they like in their clothing, without particular reference to propriety. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that many patterns were created and artificially associated with Scottish clans, families, or institutions who were (or wished to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage. The Victorians’ penchant for ordered taxonomy and the new chemical dyes then available meant that the idea of specific patterns of bright colours, or ‘dress’ tartans could be created and applied to a faux-nostalgic view of Scottish history.
It is generally stated that the most popular tartans today are the Black Watch (also known as Old Campbell, Grant Hunting, Universal, Government) and Royal Stewart.Today tartan is no longer limited to textiles but is used on non-woven mediums, such as paper, plastics, packaging, and wall coverings.
A clan tartan is one that represents your clan. It is not necessarily the tartan that your ancestors would have worn hundreds of years ago. Highlanders traditionally would have selected any tartan they liked from the available sources. You are still free to do the same! However, it is a fact that tartans today have meaning, and when you wear a tartan you are identifying yourself with what that tartan represents, be it a clan, district, or what have you. Most today would of course select a tartan that they feel identifies with some part of your heritage. While if there is a tartan for your surname, that would be an obvious choice, there is nothing wrong with wearing a tartan for another branch of your family. Commercial suppliers today typically produce a range of some 500 – 700 tartan designs, enough to satisfy most of the requests for tartan patterns. However, there are well over 7000 unique tartans on record. Where tartans were recorded before the establishment of the Scottish Register of Tartans (SRT) on 5 February 2009, the original Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) and the Scottish Tartans World Register (STWR) reference numbers have been retained. The new SRT reference number for HOPKINS : 5940 The registration criteria now applied by the Register conforms to the Scottish Register of Tartans Act 2008. These criteria are different to those previously applied by either the STA or the STWR. You may wish to refer to the STA, SRT website for further information. The STS (Scottish Tartan Society) is now Defunct but the registered Tartans have been recorded by the other organizations.
Reading the Tartan
A tartan pattern emerges out of a single list of coloured threads called a thread count. Reading a tartan requires a little practice and involves finding two unique points within the pattern called the pivots. Tartans consist of broader bands of colour called the under check which are often decorated or embellished with narrower lines of colour called the over check. Once the basic possibilities are understood, one can better appreciate designs that combine and extend the simple ideas. The largest group of tartan uses the three-colour design of Black Watch as its basis. (See Examples)
Where two stripes of the same colour cross, a block of solid colour is formed. Where different colours cross, the two colours are mixed in equal proportions to create a new colour. Ideally, neither colour should ‘swamp’ the other. The two together should make a new intermediate shade.
A tartan pattern is a geometric design, made up of blocks of solid colour which join on the diagonal, radiating across the fabric like spokes, and with each block of colour surrounded by blocks of mixed colours. The blocks form a pattern, reflected or repeated many times across both the warp and weft of the cloth.
The total number of colours in a tartan (including mixtures) increases rapidly as the number of colours increases: two colours make a total of three colours including mixtures; six base colours make a total of twenty-one including mixtures. The more colours that are used therefore, the more complicated the pattern becomes.
Traditionally a maximum of six colours were used in tartan – and many professional designers still stick to this limit to avoid over-complicating the design. If you choose to use more than six colours, you should be aware that some weavers are limited to a maximum of six colours on their looms. Other looms do exist that can weave more than six colours but you will have less choice of weaver and it may cost more to both weave the fabric and make up a kilt.
The threadcount provides the weaver with the details of the pattern he is to weave: the order of the stripes, their colours and the relative proportions of one to another. In the past this information has sometimes been recorded in actual measurements, nowadays the literal number of threads is usually given. In either case, it is the proportions of the pattern that are being set out and the precise numbers may be scaled up or down according to the required end product.
James Logan was the first to publish tartan patterns in the appendix to his book ‘The Scottish Gael’ (1831). He measured the width of each stripe from the edge of the cloth in units of one-eighth of an inch, calling a sixteenth of an inch a ‘½’, a quarter of an inch ‘2’ and so on. This method was also adopted by the Lyon Office when it began to register setts after the Second World War. Subsequently the Lyon Office took to giving its counts in threads as a more accurate system of recording.
Long before James Logan, the Bannockburn weavers William Wilson and Son compiled ‘true’ threadcounts for their own internal purposes. These counts ran from centre to centre of the half sett – it being understood that the count would repeat backwards and forwards across the width of the cloth with a doubling of the number of threads at each turn.
The format for threadcounts used by the Scottish Register of Tartans was developed by Donald C Stewart for his book‘The Setts of the Scottish Tartans’ (1950) and was then adopted by the Scottish Tartans Society, the Scottish Tartans World Register and the Scottish Tartans Authority. This system gives the number of threads in each stripe assuming an even number of threads in each and a smallest stripe of two threads. It also gives the end stripes already doubled. It is usual to set out the count horizontally with letters indicating the colours alongside the number of threads. The count at each pivot is usually emphasised by the use of bold type, underlining or the use of a slash ‘/’ between the letter and the number. A non-reversing pattern is indicated by three dots before the first and following the last stripe.
The requirement for the smallest stripe to have at least two threads grew from the necessity to pass the shuttle across the loom and back. Although this is
not always technically essential anymore, there is still a general acceptance amongst the tartan industry that a tartan should be created from even numbered threads.
Tartan is made with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as bothwarp and weft at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill, two over – two under the warp, advancing one thread each pass. This forms visible diagonal lines where different colours cross, which give the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.
The size of a sett will vary according to the proposed tartan product. A three inch sett is more appropriate for a tartan tie, whereas a six inch sett will be more appropriate for a kilt or skirt. For the purposes of registration with the Scottish Register of Tartans, the threadcount for the production of a six inch sett should be provided.
A six inch sett will usually be made up of approximately 240 – 260 threads. A threadcount for a six inch sett given over half a sett with a full count at each pivot should therefore amount to a total of between 140 and 160 threads.
A check is a very simple form of tartan, comprising the blocks of colour without the overchecks, bands and stripes which give tartan its interest. It will generally have a total of less than 100 threads in the threadcount and the stripes and blocks of colour will be fairly evenly proportioned.
Etymology and terminology
The English word tartan is derived from the French tiretain. This French word is probably derived from the verb tirer in reference to woven cloth (as opposed to knitted cloth).[note 1] Today tartanusually refers to coloured patterns, though originally a tartan did not have to be made up of any pattern at all. As late as the 1830s tartan was sometimes described as “plain coloured … without pattern”. Patterned cloth from the Gaelic speaking Scottish Highlands was called breacan, meaning many colours. Over time the meanings of tartan and breacan were combined to describe certain type of pattern on a certain type of cloth. The pattern of a tartan is called a sett. The sett is made up of a series of woven threads which cross at right angles.
Today tartan is generally used to describe the pattern, not limited to textiles. In America the termplaid is commonly used to describe tartan. The word plaid, derived from the Scottish Gaelicplaide, meaning “blanket”, was first used of any rectangular garment, sometimes made up of tartan, particularly that which preceded the modern kilt (see: belted plaid). In time, plaid was used to describe blankets themselves.
There are 3 Distinctly different Tartans on this page. One of them appears twice (2 different weaves of the same Tartan). The latter is my clans official Tartan. The others are (directly above) a Scottish of Welsh Name (of Welsh Ancestry) and the one is of Wales only (no relation or ancestry related to Scotland – an Unofficial but registered pattern circa 2002).